Tag Archives: food science

From Finely Textured Beef to Soylent Pink

Blame corporate euphemisms and branding for the obfuscation of everyday things. More sinister yet, is the constant re-working of names for our ever increasingly processed foodstuffs. Only last year as several influential health studies pointed towards the detrimental health effects of high fructose corn syrup (HFC) did the food industry act, but not by removing copious amounts of the addictive additive from many processed foods. Rather, the industry attempted to re-brand HFC as “corn sugar”. And, now on to the battle over “soylent pink” also known as “pink slim”.

[div class=attrib]From Slate:[end-div]

What do you call a mash of beef trimmings that have been chopped and then spun in a centrifuge to remove the fatty bits and gristle? According to the government and to the company that invented the process, you call it lean finely textured beef. But to the natural-food crusaders who would have the stuff removed from the nation’s hamburgers and tacos, the protein-rich product goes by another, more disturbing name: Pink slime.

The story of this activist rebranding—from lean finely textured beef to pink slime—reveals just how much these labels matter. It was the latter phrase that, for example, birthed the great ground-beef scare of 2012. In early March, journalists at both the Daily and at ABC began reporting on a burger panic: Lax rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed producers to fill their ground-beef packs with a slimy, noxious byproduct—a mush the reporters called unsanitary and without much value as a food. Coverage linked back to a New York Times story from 2009 in which the words pink slime had appeared in public for the first time in a quote from an email written by a USDA microbiologist who was frustrated at a decision to leave the additive off labels for ground meat.

The slimy terror spread in the weeks that followed. Less than a month after ABC’s initial reports, almost a quarter million people had signed a petition to get pink slime out of public school cafeterias. Supermarket chains stopped selling burger meat that contained it—all because of a shift from four matter-of-fact words to two visceral ones.

And now that rebranding has become the basis for a 263-page lawsuit. Last month, Beef Products Inc., the first and principal producer of lean/pink/textured/slimy beef, filed a defamation claim against ABC (along with that microbiologist and a former USDA inspector) in a South Dakota court. The company says the network carried out a malicious and dishonest campaign to discredit its ground-beef additive and that this work had grievous consequences. When ABC began its coverage, Beef Products Inc. was selling 5 million pounds of slime/beef/whatever every week. Then three of its four plants were forced to close, and production dropped to 1.6 million pounds. A weekly profit of $2.3 million had turned into a $583,000 weekly loss.

At Reuters, Steven Brill argued that the suit has merit. I won’t try to comment on its legal viability, but the details of the claim do provide some useful background about how we name our processed foods, in both industry and the media. It turns out the paste now known within the business as lean finely textured beef descends from an older, less purified version of the same. Producers have long tried to salvage the trimmings from a cattle carcass by cleaning off the fat and the bacteria that often congregate on these leftover parts. At best they could achieve a not-so-lean class of meat called partially defatted chopped beef, which USDA deemed too low in quality to be a part of hamburger or ground meat.

By the late 1980s, though, Eldon Roth of Beef Products Inc. had worked out a way to make those trimmings a bit more wholesome. He’d found a way, using centrifuges, to separate the fat more fully. In 1991, USDA approved his product as fat reduced beef and signed off on its use in hamburgers. JoAnn Smith, a government official and former president of the National Cattlemen’s Association, signed off on this “euphemistic designation,” writes Marion Nestle in Food Politics. (Beef Products, Inc. maintains that this decision “was not motivated by any official’s so-called ‘links to the beef industry.’ “) So 20 years ago, the trimmings had already been reformulated and rebranded once.

But the government still said that fat reduced beef could not be used in packages marked “ground beef.” (The government distinction between hamburger and ground beef is that the former can contain added fat, while the latter can’t.) So Beef Products Inc. pressed its case, and in 1993 it convinced the USDA to approve the mash for wider use, with a new and better name: lean finely textured beef. A few years later, Roth started killing the microbes on his trimmings with ammonia gas and got approval to do that, too. With government permission, the company went on to sell several billion pounds of the stuff in the next two decades.

In the meantime, other meat processors started making something similar but using slightly different names. AFA Foods (which filed for bankruptcy in April after the recent ground-beef scandal broke), has referred to its products as boneless lean beef trimmings, a more generic term. Cargill, which decontaminates its meat with citric acid in place of ammonia gas, calls its mash of trimmings finely textured beef.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Industrial ground beef. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

The How and Why of Supersized Sodas

Apparently the Great Depression in the United States is to blame for the mega-sized soda drinks that many now consume on a daily basis, except in New York City of course (sugary drinks larger than 16oz were banned for sale in restaurants beginning September 13, 2012).

[div class=attrib]From Wired:[end-div]

The New York City Board of Health voted Thursday to ban the sale of sugary soft drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, a move that has sparked intense debate between public health advocates and beverage industry lobbyists. When did sodas get so big in the first place?

In the 1930s. At the beginning of the Great Depression, the 6-ounce Coca-Cola bottle was the undisputed king of soft drinks. The situation began to change in 1934, when the smallish Pepsi-Cola company began selling 12-ounces bottles for the same nickel price as 6 ounces of Coke. The move was brilliant. Distribution, bottling, and advertising accounted for most of the company’s costs, so adding six free ounces hardly mattered. In addition, the 12-ounce size enabled Pepsi-Cola to use the same bottles as beer-makers, cutting container costs. The company pursued a similar strategy at the nation’s soda fountains, selling enough syrup to make 10 ounces for the same price as 6 ounces worth of Coca-Cola. Pepsi sales soared, and the company soon produced a jingle about their supersize bottles: “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, 12 full ounces, that’s a lot. Twice as much for a nickel, too. Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.” Pepsi’s value-for-volume gambit kicked off a decades-long industry trend.

Coke was slow to respond at first, according to author Mark Pendergrast, who chronicled the company’s history in For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. President Robert Woodruff held firm to the 6-ounce size, even as his subordinates warned him that Pepsi was onto something. By the 1950s, industry observers predicted that Coca-Cola might lose its dominant position, and top company executives were threatening to resign if Woodruff didn’t bend on bottle size. In 1955, 10- and 12-ounce “King Size” Coke bottles hit the market, along with a 26-ounce “Family Size.” Although the new flexibility helped Coca-Cola regain its footing, the brave new world of giant bottles was hard to accept for some. Company vice president Ed Forio noted that “bringing out another bottle was like being unfaithful to your wife.”

The trend toward larger sizes occurred in all sectors of the market. When Coca-Cola partnered with McDonald’s in the 1950s, the original fountain soda at the restaurant chain more closely approximated the classic Coke bottle at seven ounces. The largest cup size grew to 16 ounces in the 1960s and hit 21 ounces by 1974.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Big Gulp. Courtesy of Chicago Tribune.[end-div]

High Fructose Corn Syrup = Corn Sugar?

Hats off to the global agro-industrial complex that feeds most of the Earth’s inhabitants. With high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) getting an increasingly bad rap for helping to expand our waistlines and catalyze our diabetes, the industry is becoming more creative.

However, it’s only the type of “creativity” that a cynic would come to expect from a faceless, trillion dollar industry; it’s not a fresh, natural innovation. The industry wants to rename HFCS to “corn sugar”, making it sound healthier and more natural in the process.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

The United States Food and Drug Administration has rejected a request from the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup.

The association, which represents the companies that make the syrup, had petitioned the F.D.A. in September 2010 to begin calling the much-maligned sweetener “corn sugar.” The request came on the heels of a national advertising campaign promoting the syrup as a natural ingredient made from corn.

But in a letter, Michael M. Landa, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the F.D.A., denied the petition, saying that the term “sugar” is used only for food “that is solid, dried and crystallized.”

“HFCS is an aqueous solution sweetener derived from corn after enzymatic hydrolysis of cornstarch, followed by enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose,” the letter stated. “Thus, the use of the term ‘sugar’ to describe HFCS, a product that is a syrup, would not accurately identify or describe the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties.”

In addition, the F.D.A. concluded that the term “corn sugar” has been used to describe the sweetener dextrose and therefore should not be used to describe high-fructose corn syrup. The agency also said the term “corn sugar” could pose a risk to consumers who have been advised to avoid fructose because of a hereditary fructose intolerance or fructose malabsorption.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Fructose vs. D-Glucose Structural Formulae. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

Heinz and the Clear Glass Bottle

[div class=attrib]From Anthropology in Practice:[end-div]

Do me a favor: Go open your refrigerator and look at the labels on your condiments. Alternatively, if you’re at work, open your drawer and flip through your stash of condiment packets. (Don’t look at me like that. I know you have a stash. Or you know where to find one. It’s practically Office Survival 101.) Go on. I’ll wait.

So tell me, what brands are hanging out in your fridge? (Or drawer?) Hellmann’s? French’s? Heinz? Even if you aren’t a slave to brand names and you typically buy whatever is on sale or the local supermarket brand, if you’ve ever eaten out or purchased a meal to-go that required condiments, you’ve likely been exposed to one of these brands for mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup. And given the broad reach of Heinz, I’d be surprised if the company didn’t get a mention. So what are the origins of Heinz—the man and the brand? Why do we adorn our hamburgers and hotdogs with his products over others? It boils down to trust—carefully crafted trust, which obscures the image of Heinz as a food corporation and highlights a sense of quality, home-made goods.

Henry Heinz was born in 1844 to German immigrant parents near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father John owned a brickyard in Sharpsburg, and his mother Anna was a homemaker with a talent for gardening. Henry assisted both of them—in the brickyard before and after school, and in the garden when time permitted. He also sold surplus produce to local grocers. Henry proved to have quite a green thumb himself and at the age of twelve, he had his own plot, a horse, a cart, and a list of customers.

Henry’s gardening proficiency was in keeping with the times—most households were growing or otherwise making their own foods at home in the early nineteenth century, space permitting. The market for processed food was hampered by distrust in the quality offered:

Food quality and safety were growing concerns in the mid nineteenth-century cities. These issues were not new. Various local laws had mandated inspection of meat and flour exports since the colonial period. Other ordinances had regulated bread prices and ingredients, banning adulterants, such as chalk and ground beans. But as urban areas and the sources of food supplying these areas expanded, older controls weakened. Public anxiety about contaminated food, including milk, meat, eggs, and butter mounted. So, too, did worries about adulterated chocolate, sugar, vinegar, molasses, and other foods.

Contaminants included lead (in peppers and mustard) and ground stone (in flour and sugar). So it’s not surprising that people were hesitant about purchasing pre-packaged products. However, American society was on the brink of a social change that would make people more receptive to processed foods: industrialization was accelerating. As a result, an increase in urbanization reduced the amount of space available for gardens and livestock, incomes rose so that more people could afford prepared foods, and women’s roles shifted to allow for wage labor. In fact, between 1859 and 1899, the output of the food processing industry expanded 1500%, and by 1900, manufactured food comprised about a third of commodities produced in the US.

So what led the way for this adoption of packaged foods? Believe it or not, horseradish.

Horseradish was particularly popular among English and German immigrant communities. It was used to flavor potatoes, cabbage, bread, meats, and fish—and some people even attributed medicinal properties to the condiment. It was also extremely time consuming to make: the root had to be grated, packed in vinegar and spices, and sealed in jars or pots. The potential market for prepared horseradish existed, but customers were suspicious of the contents of the green and brown glass bottles that served as packaging. Turnip and wood-fibers were popular fillers, and the opaque coloring of the bottles made it hard to judge the caliber of the contents.

Heinz understood this—and saw the potential for selling consumers, especially women—something that they desperately wanted: time. In his teens, he began to bottle horseradish using his mother’s recipe—without fillers—in clear glass, and sold his products to local grocers and hotel owners. He emphasized the purity of his product and noted he had nothing to hide because he used clear glass so you could view the contents of his product. His strategy worked: By 1861, he was growing three and a half acres of horseradish to meet demand, and had made $2400.00 by year’s end (roughly $93,000.00 in 2012).

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Henry J. Heinz (1844-1919). Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

The Business of Making Us Feel Good

Advertisers have long known how to pull at our fickle emotions and inner motivations to sell their products. Further still many corporations fine-tune their products to the nth degree to ensure we learn to crave more of the same. Whether it’s the comforting feel of an armchair, the soft yet lingering texture of yogurt, the fresh scent of hand soap, or the crunchiness of the perfect potato chip, myriad focus groups, industrial designers and food scientists are hard at work engineering our addictions.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

Feeling low? According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, when people feel bad, their sense of touch quickens and they instinctively want to hug something or someone. Tykes cling to a teddy bear or blanket. It’s a mammal thing. If young mammals feel gloomy, it’s usually because they’re hurt, sick, cold, scared or lost. So their brain rewards them with a gust of pleasure if they scamper back to mom for a warm nuzzle and a meal. No need to think it over. All they know is that, when a negative mood hits, a cuddle just feels right; and if they’re upbeat and alert, then their eyes hunger for new sights and they’re itching to explore.

It’s part of evolution’s gold standard, the old carrot-and-stick gambit, an impulse that evades reflection because it evolved to help infants thrive by telling them what to do — not in words but in sequins of taste, heartwarming touches, piquant smells, luscious colors.

Back in the days before our kind knew what berries to eat, let alone which merlot to choose or HD-TV to buy, the question naturally arose: How do you teach a reckless animal to live smart? Some brains endorsed correct, lifesaving behavior by doling out sensory rewards. Healthy food just tasted yummy, which is why we now crave the sweet, salty, fatty foods our ancestors did — except that for them such essentials were rare, needing to be painstakingly gathered or hunted. The seasoned hedonists lived to explore and nuzzle another day — long enough to pass along their snuggly, junk-food-bedeviled genes.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]